The Nevada State Health Response team reported the first case of COVID-19 reinfection in the country during a press conference Friday afternoon.
Dr. Mark Pandori, the director of Nevada State Public Health Lab and associate professor in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, said that the patient is 25 years old and has no significant underlying health conditions. The age and health conditions of the reinfected patient signal the limitations of popular beliefs and perceptions around the pandemic.
“The patient had tested negative on two separate occasions,” said Pandori.
An official update from UNR on the case reads, “Forty-eight days after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 in April 2020 and after testing negative consecutively twice, a Washoe County, Nevada patient tested positive again, in June.”
The genomes of the patient’s virus samples were sequenced in April and June, displaying significant genetic difference between the two cases, “implying the patient was infected twice,” said the UNR statement.
What are the findings?
According to Pandori, embedded in the genomic material of SARS-CoV-2 is a detailed code that may enable the world to better understand the virus.
“A virus has a biological genome like all living things,” he said. “Since March, the NSPHL has analyzed the genomic RNA of approximately 200 positive COVID-19 samples from Nevadans who have tested positive for COVID-19.”
The research team comprises Richard Tillett, Joel Sevinsky and a bevy of scientists partnered with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Forensic Sciences Unit to carry out identity testing on the specimens and lab samples taken from the infected patient.
“There are many anecdotal stories of reinfection, but proving reinfection–that requires rigorous scientific evidence,” said Pandori. The case of the Nevada man was no different. “We examined the genomic material of the viruses and samples to investigate this,” said Pandori.
“It is just one finding, but it shows that a person can possibly become infected with SARS-CoV-2 a second time.”
In this particular case, “the patient had recovered and tested negative twice in two separate molecular tests before he tested positive in June after a molecular test,” he added.
“The two positive specimens separated by 48 days were found to be genetically distinct…At least 12 genetic differences,” signifying reinfection, he added.
What does this mean for the fight against COVID-19?
“If reinfection is possible on such a short timeline, there may be implications for the efficacy of vaccines developed to fight the disease,” said the statement.
Pandori pointed out during the media briefing that the new finding cannot be used as a general rule at this point. Still, it is crucial information: “What we don’t know at this point is how often,” he said of potential frequency of patient reinfection, and this lack of information may have an impact on the vaccine research.
The “unknown” is caused by lack of data.
Some cases of reinfection have been reported in Hong Kong and Europe. “With time we will come to know if the reinfection is common with COVID-19 or that happens rarely,” he said.
“It may also have implications for herd immunity,” Pandori added.
Herd immunity hinges on the theory that after natural infection, the immune systems of people will collectively protect a community from reinfection and further spread.
According to Pandori, it cannot be said at this point how this new information may affect disease prevention and vaccination efforts, but Nevadans will be wise to have the knowledge that having COVID once does not make anyone immune to a second or multiple infections.
“One is not invulnerable and one can get sick again and that illness can be quite severe, so when one recovers they need to do all of the things that an uninfected person does like mask wearing, hand washing, socially distancing,” Pandori emphasized.
The findings have been sent for preprints with the Lancet journal.
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